Saville report on Bloody Sunday massacre exonerates victims

Nearly 40 years after 14 Catholic civil rights marchers were killed by British soldiers in Derry, Northern Ireland, the UK's Saville report on Bloody Sunday exonerated the marchers. But prosecutions look unlikely, analysts say.

Peter Morrison/AP
Relatives and family members of those killed and injured in the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings make their way to the Guildhall to receive a preview of the Saville report in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Tuesday.

All those shot dead by the British Army in Northern Ireland's infamous Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972 were unarmed and innocent, according to a British government report released today that repudiated an earlier investigation that had accused the civil rights marchers of carrying weapons and provoking the violence.

The long-awaited Saville inquiry into the killing of 14 people and the injuring of 29 more in the city of Derry on Jan. 30, 1972 criticized the soldiers and officers involved and said they gave false testimony about the events of the day to deflect blame onto their victims.

The Saville report, the result of the longest and most expensive investigation in British legal history, should bring some measure of closure to one of the ugliest and most contested chapters in the history of Northern Ireland's "troubles." The official Widgery report of 1972 had exonerated the Army, claiming that soldiers came under fire and that forensic evidence showed those killed handled explosives.

The relatives of the dead considered the report a whitewash, and have been fighting for years to set the record straight. The report released today, which took 12 years and £195 million ($287 million) to complete, appears to do just that.

British Prime Minister David Cameron apologized to the families of those killed. He said he was "deeply sorry" and that the findings were "shocking ... what happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong."

There had been much speculation that lawsuits and possible prosecutions would follow. But the report, whose lead author is the former judge Lord Saville, did not refer to the actions as “unlawful killings," something that analysts said makes prosecutions unlikely.

“It certainly doesn’t sound like he [Saville] had the desire or the wherewithal to recommend prosecutions,” says political consultant Mick Fealty, a commentator on Irish affairs who edits the political blog

Mr. Cameron refused to talk about possible prosecutions, saying he did not wish to prejudice any future actions, including civil suits.

Shot in the back

The 10-volume, 5,000-page report found that the British Army opened fire on unarmed protesters complaining of anti-Catholic discrimination in Northern Ireland. The report says that none of the victims posed a threat. It notes people shot in the back, people shot while already injured, and one man who was shot in the back while crawling away to take cover from fire.

The report firmly rejected the testimony of soldiers, saying that soldiers “knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing." The soldiers that day lost self-control and there was a "serious and widespread loss of fire discipline," the inquiry found.

Relatives of the dead celebrated the report’s release in Derry.

“It can now be proclaimed to the world that the dead and the wounded of Bloody Sunday, civil rights marchers one and all, were innocent one and all, gunned down on their own streets by soldiers who had been given to believe that they could kill with perfect impunity,” said Tony Doherty, whose father, Paddy, died when paratroopers started shooting, according to a report in the local Derry Journal newspaper.

Speaking on the steps of Dáil Éireann, Ireland’s parliament, Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen thanked his British counterpart and went on to excoriate the previous inquiry. The Irish government has pressed for this latest investigation for decades.

“Bloody Sunday was unique,” he told reporters. “The ultimate injustice perpetrated on Bloody Sunday was the unjustified and unjustifiable killing of innocent civilians by those who claimed to be keeping the peace.” Mr. Cowen called the previous inquiry “a shameful attempt to distort history.”

Mark Durkan, former leader of the moderate Irish republican Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP), said the victims had been “exonerated” in an emotional speech in the British parliament.

The year 1972 was the bloodiest in the conflict in Ireland, seeing a total of 479 deaths.

Political problems with history

Kevin Bean, a professor at the Institute of Irish Studies at England's University of Liverpool, says that despite the prime minister’s reconciliatory tone, the report will not be welcomed in the backrooms of Westminter.

“It's problematic for the government because there have been unpleasant echos in the conduct of British troops in Iraq. The political problem the Conservatives had was that this report had to be published, the machinery was already up and running,” he says.

Cameron himself said there would be no more “costly and open-ended” inquiries.

Ireland's Pro-British Unionist politicians struck a discordant note, however. One longtime critic of the inquiry, Gregory Campbell, who is a member of parliament for the hard-line pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), criticized the report, telling the parliament: “The sorry saga of this report is over and done with.”

Mr. Campbell compared the events to killings by the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and brushed aside complaints that state violence and violence by non-state combatants were qualitatively different. He also claimed that the Irish government funded the armed wing of the IRA. “That Irish state acted as a midwife to the birth of an organization that murdered thousands of United Kingdom citizens,” he said.

Fellow DUP party member Jeffrey Donaldson said: “The truth is we don’t know what Martin McGuinness and the IRA were doing on that day." The report said that the movements of Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuiness, then second in command of the local Derry IRA, that day were unclear. The report said he may have fired a sub-machine gun but that even if he had that it did not cause the Army’s actions.

The DUP, led by first minister Peter Robinson, forms the government of Northern Ireland in partnership with Sinn Féin. Mr. McGuiness is the deputy first minister.

'Blaire's touchy-feely politics'

Northern Irish Unionists and British Conservatives have long been suspicious of the inquiry, but there is also weariness among many in the Republican population. In his book "Great Hatred, Little Room: Making Peace in Northern Ireland," Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell said Martin McGuinness told him that an apology would have sufficed. McGuinness denies he said any such thing.

Professor Bean says the inquiry can be understood as a “folly” of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“It was all part of Blair's touchy-feely politics and ideas of truth and reconciliation. It uses the language of healing wounds and the pattern of the peace process as psychological rather than political,” he says. “There was a strong lobby in Derry centered on 'closure' but in terms of the wider nationalist population there was less of a sense that it was a central issue in terms of moving forward, despite clear anger over the events.”

According to Bean, the inquiry has shown up the faults of individuals without explaining the politics.

“The wider political issue is being buried by blaming the individual soldiers and their immediate superiors,” he says. “It ducks the question as to what was going on – it’s very much a ‘bad apple’ argument.”


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